Cotton grower loses eyesight, but not his vision for farming

Jonathan Evans, of Nashville, North Carolina, walks the 250 feet back and forth from his family’s home to their shop every day. He knows every pebble, number of steps and tripping hazards.

Even though he lost his sight in a farm accident 25 years ago, nothing can stop him from raising cotton.

On Aug. 3, 1998, he was 18 years old and preparing to start college in a few weeks. His father, Keith, was spraying cotton fields that day while Jonathan and his uncle, Steve, were irrigating a cotton field nearby. After Keith finished, he drove up to the irrigation system to help Jonathan and Steve, who were in the process of moving the irrigation reel. Jonathan hooked the riser up to the pipe and waited for his cue to turn the valve to turn the water on. Keith pulled the irrigation cart across the field, but something was wrong.

“When I got to the other end I kept waiting for the water to come on, but I didn’t see any,” Keith explained. “So, I drove back to Jonathan and when I got there he was lying on the ground. The clamp had a bad spring on it and when he was turning it, the spring just came loose and that riser hit him in the face. His nose was pushed back on top of his head. It had just wiped his face right off.”

Knocked unconscious from the impact, Keith said he was afraid Jonathan would drown in his own blood because it was running from where his nose and was into his mouth. He feared his son would die right there in his arms as he propped Jonathan’s head up.

“We called the rescue squad and they came down, but they didn’t know exactly what to do because they’d never seen anything quite like that,” Keith said. “I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen when they left.”

He was stabilized at a nearby hospital, then life flighted to Duke University Hospital in Durham, North Carolina. By this time Keith had told Jonathan’s mother, Ann, about the accident and she made her way to the hospital.

“I had no clue how bad it was when we got to the hospital,” she said. “When they said they were going to transfer him to Duke I thought it must be pretty serious.”

Ann was right, Jonathan had sustained terrible facial trauma when the riser hit him. The bones in his face were crushed and he underwent a 16-hour surgery when he arrived at Duke and another 17-hour reconstructive surgery followed a couple weeks later.

“The surgeon at Duke said all the bones in his face looked like a box of crushed corn flakes,” Keith said.

All in all, Jonathan was in the hospital for four weeks, with his parents staying in a hotel across the street. Ann said tons of family and friends prayed for them during this time and the local John Deere dealership even paid for their four-week hotel stay. One of Jonathan’s eyes was badly damaged and had to be removed during the first operation and the doctors were desperately trying to save the vision in his only remaining eye.

“The eye surgeons said the one eye might recover, although they described it as squished like a grape,” Keith said. “He finally wound up losing his eyesight in both eyes.”

Eventually his tracheostomy was removed and Ann knew Jonathan needed to understand the full extent of his injuries.

“One morning I told Keith one of us has to go over there and tell him what has happened to him because the whole time he hadn’t asked about his sight,” she said. “Jonathan’s only response was, “I’ll just have to do the best I can.””

Determined to farm

Jonathan remembers very little of his hospital stay or being told he had lost his sight.

“For probably two and a half to three weeks after it, I’m totally blank,” Jonathan said.

He should have been starting his freshman year at the Ag Institute at North Carolina State University in the fall of 1998, but under the circumstances he did not attend. Incredibly, Jonathan was back in the cotton field that fall and ran a module builder during harvest.

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“We had walkie-talkies and he already knew how to run it,” Ann explained. “Keith and Jonathan just communicated well with each other. He packed all of our cotton that year and operated a module builder until we got a John Deere bale picker.”

By January, Jonathan was enrolled in the Morehead School for the Blind, but only stayed a short time. He came home and farmed that year, but the Evanses decided to give the school another shot the next January, and he stayed the entire semester. Ann said he did learn mobility skills and this was when he was first introduced to talking software.

Fast forward 25 years and Jonathan, Keith and Ann are still running the family farm together raising cotton and soybean. They are 90% dryland with the little bit of irrigation used to get them through dry spells.

Each of them has their roles on the operation. Keith runs the planter, sprayer and picker; Jonathan serves as the agronomist and decides what varieties to plant and where and even uploads all planting and spraying data on an iPad for Keith to use in the field. Ann runs the cotton bale spear in the fall to line up the cotton modules, helps move equipment from field to field, picks up parts and delivers lunch. Ann and Jonathan also spend many hours scouting fields together. As Jonathan says, the most profitable things you can put in your field is your shadow.

“It’s amazing that he can go out there and diagnose problems by the feeling the plant,” she said. “When we look for insects I have to be his eyes and describe what I see and counts how many to gauge the pest threshold.”

They say the other senses double when one sense is lost, but for Jonathan his other senses seemingly tripled. His parents say he has incredible sense of touch, hearing, direction and memory, which serve him well on the farm. Ann said once she got in a tractor and Jonathan, who was standing nearby, could hear air escaping from a leak in the tire. Most importantly, Jonathan does not live like he has a handicap and many people he meets do not realize he is blind.

“I just try to live as normal as possible,” Jonathan said. “Sometimes I don’t realize I can’t see. I just try to visualize things in my mind and I feel like I can see what I’m doing.”

Ann said when Jonathan became involved with Deltapine cotton seed company a new set of opportunities opened up for him. He developed strong relationships with Deltapine representatives and talks with them often. In fact, in 2022 Jonathan was selected to be a Deltapine New Product Evaluator grower and raise experimental cotton varieties and give his opinions as to what varieties worked best on his operation. The feedback from farmers in that program is then used to determine the varieties that will be released commercially.

Technology is crucial

Jonathan relies heavily on the voice-over technology on iPhones and iPads. He admits he could not be near as involved with his family farm without these tools. It gives him freedom to be as independent as possible and serves as his eyes and communicates to him via his phone or tablet.

“The iPhone will tell you what’s in a picture on the screen,” Jonathan explained. “If it’s a picture of a cotton plant, it will describe the picture and if you tap on it, it will take you straight to the Wikipedia page and read to you about it.”

Jonathan pointed out life is a little easier for him as a blind person since he could see for the first 18 years of his life.

“If you know what stuff looks like, you can probably visualize it a lot better than if you’ve never seen it. If I’d never seen a cotton plant before, I couldn’t go out and scout cotton fields, because I wouldn’t know what it’s supposed to look like.”

Jonathan was a skilled mechanic before his accident, and he still works on equipment in the shop to this day. He can even take a small engine apart and put it back together.

“I know what it looks like from my memory,” he said. “Once you know what something looks like you can visualize how a newer piece would work.”

Youtube is one of his best friends when it comes to learning about anything farming. Whether it be a new piece of equipment or a farming practice.

“You wouldn’t think someone who can’t see would watch a lot of YouTube, but I watch it all the time,” he quipped.

Jonathan said one technology that has been a game-changer for him is Climate FieldView. This data collection software helps him manage all his fields, view satellite imagery, drop pins in problem areas and even check rainfall amounts.

“You can have all your records on your phone or iPad instead of having scribbled notes everywhere,” he said. “You can upload when it was planted, picked and what was the yield. Whatever you want is there and it reads it to me.”

FieldView is also a valuable tool for conducting on-farm research.

“In my opinion, the on-farm research and trials are worth a lot. Universities do small plots because they don’t have enough area to do large plots. With FieldView, every field can be a test plot and you can compare it on your own farm rather than relying on a university’s test plot.”

A study in faith

This was not the future anyone pictured when the Evans family woke up on that August day in 1998, but they are thankful for numerous blessing along the way and the fact Jonathan can still farm.

“What happened was bad, but it could have been a lot worse,” Ann said.

She credits their faith for bringing the family through the biggest challenges of the last 25 years.

“We are strong Christians and had it not been for our faith, we would not be where we are today. I’m very proud of Jonathan and what he’s accomplished. For several years after that happened, Jonathan even went around and spoke at youth groups and even went on a mission trip to Ukraine and shared his testimony.”

For Keith, Jonathan’s accident and the years since has served to deepen his faith beyond and understanding of God’s divine plan.

“When we brought him home from the hospital, we had a lot of questions,” Keith said. “Was he just going to be sitting here in a chair all day pity-pouting and making a burden on us? But that never happened.”

Keith said early on the family prayed for Jonathan to regain his sight in one eye and when that did not happen, their faith was tested and he wondered if God really did answer prayers. He looks at those years differently now and his trust in God has been reinforced over the years with everything Jonathan has been able to accomplish in spite of losing his eyesight.

“As I look back over 25 years, God’s answered a lot of prayers,” he said.

Jonathan encouraged anyone facing significant adversity in their life to take it one day at a time and be patient because things always improve over time.

“Don’t quit something just because you think you can do it,” he said. “It may be a challenge, but it’s no bigger than you make it to be.”

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].